Thursday, 7 May 2015

Annecy, Sisteron, Gorgeous Gorges...

Me with Robbie and Meg ;)
It was a little emotional leaving Sainte Foy, and the Alps, after a season of awesomeness. Saying good bye to people never has been, and I don't think ever will be, a forte of mine.

We weren't leaving alone though. Raf and his Family, Daughter Meg and Son Harvey along with Meg's boyfriend Robbie, were trucking out of town as well, and both vans were headed for warmer climes ;)

We'd decided to head South for a spot of R + R. (Because we hadn't had enough already!)

First stop out of the mountains was Annecy, a quaint little town perched on a huge Lake right at the entrance to the Alps. Kerry and I had been through Annecy before, even spending a night there, but we didn't explore properly and listening to Raf's stories it would appear we missed quite a lot!

And as it turns out Annecy is a spectacle of medieval architecture and cafe culture nestled amongst little canals from the river that feeds the Lake.

We enjoyed a day in the Palais de L'ile museum smack bang in the centre of town. It dates back to the 1300s and was first used as a prison and other associated functions like court rooms etc. At some point it was used as a Counting house and even forged some of the local area's coinage. Later in the Second World War it was turned back in to a prison of sorts, holding some Nazi Generals.

I much preferred the town at night. Not that it isn't stunning during the day. Everything is brightly lit up with different colours, giving it a jovial feel. Pubs seemed full and we enjoyed just ambling about the town, from the castle at the top of the hill down to the Lake.

Robbie is a good BMXer. I'd enjoyed an afternoon watching him ride the skate park in Bourg Sainte Maurice back in the Alps. When we were driving in to Annecy, the skatepark was the first thing he spotted. So Kerry, Meg, Harvey and I pootled down for an afternoon watching mainly kids (and Robbie) on their blades, boards, bikes and scooters. It was a nice afternoon. It made me feel like I was a teenager again, hanging out at the skatepark, doing things I wasn't meant to be doing... the good old days ;)

The days were really hot, with the sun beating down on us, but that all changed at night. We were still close to the mountains and once the sun had gone in it was time for jumpers and the van heater. We left Annecy late one day and drove South skirting past the entrances to the various valleys of the alps. Waking up the next day to find we had parked up next to a spectacular view of a ridge line... again parking in the dark is always fraught with delights!

Heading South again we entered Gorge country. The roads meandered through huge cracks in the earth, climbed steeply over huge ridgelines and plunged back in to a gorge again. Rivers ran everywhere. We were taking the route slowly as Raf's van was a little underpowered, but it was a saving grace as Kerry and I were able to take in all of the sights.
Raf's van

Raf came on the radio on one of the steeper descents down the mountainous roads that he thought he had some problems with his brakes. A daunting prospect with all of these declines!

The convoy were headed towards Sisteron and it was decided that we would stay overnight in the nice Aire de Campingcar located in the middle of the town.

Upon arrival it was clear we'd made a good decision to stop here. Sisteron is a small town located on the borders of the Alpes de Haute Provence and the Alpes de Cote d'Azure regions. It's commonly called the 'Gateway to Provence' and for a good reason. It's located on the banks of the Durance river right where two mountain ridgelines come together and plunge down to let the river flow through them. Kind of like a gateway!

Perched on one side of the river, looming above cliffs, is a medieval Citadel formed over thousands of years and seeing many a battle from the Barbarian invasion after the fall of Rome, to Napoleon passing through on his march north.

We scoured the local town for a motor factors and got Raf some new brake pads on order which were due in a couple of days later. The citadel was the perfect way to while away the days. We paid to go inside and were able to meander around the old defences as they wound their way down through various narrowing points. You get a real feel for what it must be like to try and attack these places, built on hills and heavily fortified. Arrow slits lined each gantry and sluice gates adorned each doorway.

An impressive looking bell hung at the top of a large tower which doubled up as the main water catchment for the small community. It also had very impressive views North along the Durance valley with the modern town of Sisteron spreading out to the South.

It was so hot during the day Robbie, Harvey, Kerry and I decided it'd be a good idea to investigate the shimmering blue water of the river. Robbie and I thought it was so enticing we ventured in, despite the current looking fairly strong. Luckily the side we'd picked to go in was fairly slow flowing.... but freezing freezing cold! It was obviously run off from the mountains and it took our breath away! Harvey, being 10 years old and obviously much wiser than us, decided to stay on the river bank!

Raf's brake pads finally came in and we had a morning of engineering, removing the old, very worn ones and fitting the new ones.

Then we were off, heading for the coast and a bit of seaside. We showed Raf, Meg, Robbie and Harvey the delights of Port Grimaud, St Raphael and all of the coast between Cannes and Sainte Tropez where Kerry and I have frequently spent a couple of weeks whiling away the time.

As we progressed Westward the weather started to turn for the worse. Robbie and Harvey were looking forward to a few days riding a huge skatepark in Marseille, however, with the looming weather looking to last atleast a week Kerry and I decided to say good bye to the other van and speed North, cutting the 750 miles through the Centre of France in a day and catching the midweek (cheap) ferry to get back to Blighty.
Having a cold swim

Monday, 20 April 2015

The practicalities of living in a van in the Alps...

A lot of people are amazed when I say I live in a van... But then when I tell them I lived in a van for 4 months at 1550 metres above sea level in the French Alps... Well then they think I'm a mad man.... But I'm not! There are a lot of people doing it! So just what does it entail?

Well it's cold. I'm not going to lie, there are points where you are colder than Cruella de Vil's heart and you want nothing more than 101 Dalmatians to snuggle up around you in a massive puppy duvet. (Canooie sat on my lap did help a little)


No matter what heating system you have, wood burning stove, propane gas or diesel heater, it's going to be cold when you come back from the pub, snowboarding, shopping, anything where you leave your van for a period of time. 

So getting the heater on is the main priority. Once you are generating head, insulation is key. We used 25mm celotex all around our van, sometimes doubling it up to give extra protection against your precious heat escaping. Take note and insulate the floor. Wind rushing under your van will wick away that heat as well.

Research well on the system you want to take... Burning propane in any way will generate a lot of water, hot water, that condenses on cold surfaces, ie metal vans! Wood burning stoves are hot, really really hot! and require labour intensive fuel, ie wood. Diesel heaters use 12 volt electricity to initially heat it's glow plug. Factor this in to your power generation. (more later)

Even with heating expect the cold. We regularly woke up to -6 Degrees C INSIDE the van. It took our Diesel Eberspacher D2 30 minutes to get the van up to a comfortable 12 Degrees.

We also partitioned the van, sectioning the driving part from the living part using A LOT of blankets. This in effect gave us a 'fridge' like climate in the driving bay where we stored our perishable food.


The essential element. Without it we die. So go get it. In Sainte Foy, Tarentaise this meant taking a walk up to the nearest 'Basin' (normally used for horses) This water literally runs off of the mountain and in to the trough. It's the best water you can get.... But it's heavy. We used multiple jerry cans to cut down on the number of time we would have to do a water run. 2 of these weigh a hefty Forty Kilos. The van park would group together if anyone was headed for water in a vehicle so a car or van could be used to bring the water vessels down.... Make friends when it comes to water! Failing that, acquire a sledge!

Some ski resorts will have an established 'Aire de Camping-Car' which may have services. Sometimes these are paid for, or even provided free. Enquire with the resort you are headed to.

If you have a van with pipes running under, or even through your van, take in to account these WILL freeze unless you lag them well. Temperatures got to -25 degrees C on our van season, and we had a relatively warm season!


Everyone cooks on gas. Bottles are readily available in the alps as there is no 'running gas' up in the mountains. The petrol stations have huge areas for all types. Take note that Butane will freeze in the winter and you wont be able to cook, so get Propane.

To cut down costs we purchased a Gaslow re-fillable gas bottle system. Whilst pricey to start with it soon pays for itself as it costs just 7 Euros to fill up at an LPG petrol pump, instead of the 20 - 30 Euro bottle exchange. If you are going to be in your van for a long time, I'd suggest looking in to it. Remember to buy the Euro converters for the filling point.

I'd suggest grouping together as vans when cooking. It's much nicer to eat communally, and this spreads the load between hobs. We regularly divvied out the individual components of that evenings meals between vans before coming together and sharing the food with a few beers and stories of peoples bails, sketchy avalanche moments and so-and-so having to walk for 50 minutes out of the powder.


Being toasty warm with water to drink, cook and wash with is all great, but when it gets dark you want some lights to see. This means energy generation, storage and utilisation. We used a couple of 100W solar panels on the roof of the van to generate energy which was stored in 2 110aH 12 volt deep cycle leisure batteries.

From these batteries we powered a string of LED lights, the Diesel heater, water pump for the sink and a few 12 volt cigarette and 5 volt USB outlets for charging laptops and mobile phones.

We struggled with electrical energy. The diesel heater would draw a lot of energy when it first started. This scared us and we would leave the heater for a bit and turn it off. We learnt that this was not the way to play the game. Instead, leaving the heater on, meant it soon had enough heat in it to perpetuate the diesel part of the heating and the current draw would die off to a very small amount.

Charging things when you can away from the van helped a lot. There would regularly be two or three rucksacks with laptops in sat next to a power outlet in the pub. As long as you are buying beer, this should be fine, do it!

The sun in the alps during winter can pass very low in the sky. To get optimum power generation we had the panels tilted towards the suns direction via the use of some simple tilting mounts. Just remember to put them down again if you are going to move the van!

Obviously when you get that huge dump of snow at night and wake up to a blue bird day you'll be wanting to throw your gear on and get on the hill. Grab a broom and brush those panels down. The sun wont penetrate the snow at all, and you'll need that potential energy later!


Remember... It's cold! The best way to stay warm is to be warm all the time. Invest in long johns, wear them. I wore long johns most of the time, when boarding, in the pub, in bed. Most of the time.

Hats are also your friend. You'll soon find yourself with permanent hat hair... but no one can see as you've always got your hat on!

Wees and Poos

Yes yes, I've got to mention it. It's inevitable you'll need the porcelain at least a couple of times during the season. Personally we went with a simple cassette toilet that sits in our shower tray. They're easy to use, ignore the manufacturer wanting you to buy they're 'ultra digestible' ultra high priced toilet rolls and just buy the cheapest ones you can find in the supermarket. They're just as flimsy!

Cassette toilet liquid was fairly difficult to find in the Alps for some reason, so maybe stock up when you do find some. With the cold temperatures we had no issue with smells. Having said that we used it mainly for just Wees unless it was an emergency.

Once you live in a van, whether in the alps or anywhere else, you soon get in to check with your movements. Everyone in the van park would subconsciously have a little 'Do I need it?' mental check before leaving a restaurant, pub, chalet etc.

Personally I found that I was ready to go each morning after boiling the kettle and walking up to the tourist office with a coffee. (usually in my PJs to the amusement of some tourists)

Disposal of the cassette was down a man hole cover the resort had lifted for us. Again other resorts may have a more established van park and supply a proper waste pit, maybe even a drive over one for the bigger vans.


Nicknamed  'The Great Unwashed' by the rest of resort was more a tongue in cheek joke than a true statement (For the majority!). Our showering system was 3 large kettles of boiling water mixed with the same volume of cold water, giving a 5 - 7 minute pleasantly warm shower.

Getting ad hoc work in the winter season is especially easy as you are living in your own accommodation, are available short notice, and are pretty reliable compared to flippant seasonnaires working they're nuts off! 'A quick shower' should always be appended when negotiating a wage. Wake up early, shovel snow for a couple of hours, quick shower, then hit the slopes. Those 2 hours of work should pay for lunch or a night in the bar!

We soon discovered that the larger complex's on resort have very pleasant spa facilities. Now I'm not condoning the unsolicited use of these facilities in any way.... but I did. A confident demeanor, generally clean atire and a a little 'Bon Soiree' to the concierge on the way in usually resulted in a wave back and an hour long soak in a jacuzzi. Quite how they didn't recognise me after a month of nearly daily use... I'll never know.


Wicked... You're boarding every day, showering, cooking and living in your van. #vanlife! But your creating a hell of a lot of warm moist air, even when breathing whilst asleep, pumping out litres of the stuff. This HAS to go somewhere, otherwise you'll develop a lot of condensation. It'll gather mainly on windows and other cold surfaces, but if it get really bad, may start to develop on carpeted walls and other places you really don't want it. Take a lot of towels with you. They're good for soaking up pools of water.

If it's a sunny day in the Alps (of which there are many!) open your van up, give it a good airing, try and change the air in your van as much as possible. At night, when its freezing, or when its snowing, this is obviously not possible. But good air exchanges will keep your van moisture, and mould free.

We installed a roof vent in to our van and this was cracked open a little most of the time, allowing hot rising, moisture laden air, out in to the open and pulling fresher are in through door seals and vents lower down in the van. A constant stream of ventilation. At the end of the day its managing to get a happy medium between good air exchange and staying warm. A fine art!

If you decide to bum a ski season in a van you will not regret it. It is the best way to experience the alps in my opinion. Pick up some work, snowboard alot, meet new people, enjoy yourself.

Saturday, 18 April 2015

Winter Snowboarding in a campervan in the Alps - 14/15...

Queueing for the Ferry
Leaving for the Alps was a jubilant time. I'd taken on a job working nights at Heathrow airport, it paid handsomely and was the driving financial force behind building our van . Now all that work was done and it was finally time to test her out, escape and get back on that snow! We had spent Christmas and New Year at home with our families and friends and left for the alps on the 4th of January.

Learning Snow Chains fast!
The drive was pretty boring as per usual. Until night fell just as the rain started to. We were driving through torrential rain and it was nearly impossible to see more than a couple of cars in front. We decided to call it quits and hunker down in the back of our new van ready for the last couple of hours drive to Sainte Foy in the morning. The back of our van was chocka block with pallet wood, snowboard bags, water containers.... a lot of stuff. So sleeping that night involved precariously moving the larger things off of our bed and to the front of the van. We snuggled down amongst the smaller things!
Home for the Season!

The next morning we eagerly pushed forward, just wanting to be there! We drove through a tunnel and emerged in to a winter wonderland of snow. We were still a couple of hours drive from the alps but the snow was here and it was awesome. The driving was ok as the roads were fairly clear, but the scenery changed from the drab, lifeless expanse of Northern France to a majestic, interesting mix of mountain foothills and snow..... the stuff we were coming for!

It wasn't until we reached the bottom of the mountain road up to Sainte Foy Station that the adventure really started to begin. We managed a whole 20 metres of the steep incline before grinding to a halt and suddenly sliding backwards, even with the brakes on! The road had a dusting of snow on it, but that was enough for the van to loose traction and for us to slide back down the hill. I now had the unenviable, yet necessary, task of learning how to put snow chains on in minus digit temperatures! After about 20 minutes of swearing and one pair of very very cold hands, the truck had the chains on and we were off, back up the hill!

Driving in to the van park was exciting. We'd been down to the van park a few times in the two previous seasons we'd worked in Sainte Foy, and we knew a few people with vans who were already here. We soon got the van parked up and settled in to introducing ourselves and cooking our fellow van mates, Mel and James, a nice curry! We were in our new home for the season!
Mel and Canooie

It took us a few weeks but after a while we felt really at home. The sense of community in 'The Van Park' is a really strong thing. There was 9 or 10 vans parked up, most for the entire season. The majority of people were English, a mixture of couples, a whole family and singletons. Our neighbour, Elise, was a French girl. Over the course of the season we tried to teach each other French and English, mainly when very drunk, thinking we were speaking legible sentences, only to wake up hungover and sit and have breakfast and realise that neither of us had learnt anything! She had a cute little dog called Canooie who would nip around the van park, jumping triple her height and making everyone laugh.

Overall the season was fairly poor for snow. It dumped seriously only four times, and for Sainte Foy, a predominantly off piste resort, was a disaster for all us powder hounds, longing for the fresh stuff. But it didn't put a downer on the season, far from it. For instance one day we took an hour long trek through the winter wonderland to visit a frozen waterfall. I was picturing a nice little river that'd frozen over... When we got there I was taken aback by the sheer scale of the thing. It must have been over 10 stories high, we struggled to see the top.

James even took a precarious little climb up a bit of it. I, being terrified of heights normally let alone on a slippery frozen bloody waterfall, stayed firmly on the, not quite so slippery, snow.

I much preferred this type of season. Not having to wake up EVERY morning to start cooking breakfast at 7 was bliss. Instead we normally got up when we heard someone else was awake in the van park. (usually around 11am!). We'd each take it in turns to do the bakery run, where fellow Trailer Trash, Bekx, worked (free bread and pastries!). Someone would have a kettle boiling and fresh coffee on the go, then another van would heat up a pan ready to cook eggs and sausages. Utter bliss if you ask me. We'd sit in the sun, play with Canooie, scoff our breakfasts and have a proper communal natter before hitting the slopes (or the pub)

Breakie, alp style...
We rode together most days too, taking lines you normally wouldn't or going on day long back country outings, taking bags full of wine and cheese and bread.

One memorable trip out was to a nearby resort called La Rosiere. It is situated on the French/Italian. We were all proficient boarders and nipped about the mountain, taking advantage of the boarder cross tracks and snow park sections that we didn't have the luxury of having in Sainte Foy. For me the boarder cross was wicked. I got really competitive and one little mistake could make or break a win in the race. The mountain was noisy with us all whooping and laughing.

Over in Italy we sat down for a massive group meal. I had to go native and have a Calzone. When we went to order wine the patron of the restaurant said he'd a red that was on offer. It came in huge 3 litre sized bottles and we all delved in. On the chair lift back up to the peak where we would ride back to France we were all starting to feel pretty drunk. It wasn't until we tried to ride out of the chair station and down the mountain that we realised quite how drunk! People were catching edges, catching falls, riding things they shouldn't and generally having the best time, drunk, on snowboards. We must have looked a right sight, 20 odd people charging around the mountain.

The Pistaires (Mountain Security) kindly invited 'The Great Unwashed' (us) to one of their candle lit descent evening. We all caught the last chair lift up the mountain at the end of the day and was treated to a BBQ feast. It was such a good evening, chilling on the top of a freaking mountain with the sun setting down the Tarentaise Valley.

Everyone helped build a mahoosive bonfire with old piste markers and pallets. It was lit just before the sun dipped out of view and we huddled round, tunes blaring. Some torches were scattered liberally amongst the group and lit off of the fire as it died out. Then the hairy process of snowboarding with 60 or 70 other people, some holding flaming sticks and all wearing polyester.... in the pitch black. It was a truly bizarre feeling, not seeing too well infront of you, knowing where the dips were, what terrain was coming up. I could just hear the scrape scrape scrape of boards and skis on the piste. In front was a gentle swishing of twinkling flames swaying from side to side as people ski'd down. It was an unforgettable experience and I felt very privileged to have been invited by the locals.

One lazy day (could have been a Sunday, but every day was just a Funday) Kerry and I were taken along to an abandoned hotel perched just above the main town in the valley. It was being built on top of a rare hot spring, and was to use the spring water in it's swimming pool complex, however, during construction the spring was ruined and the flow of water was reduced to a trickle. The project was abandoned and the building left to ruin.

There were a couple of French Graffiti artists throwing up some pieces when we got there. The pool was nearly finished, complete with precariously crumbling diving board. The main building was in a bad way. The steel reinforced stair case had crumbled away so much that even Canooie started to shake with fear as Mel started to walk up higher than the fourth floor. She got really spooked and wasn't right until we got back down to the road and put her on the floor.
We found where the hot spring used to run in to the nearby river. It must have had some sort of metals in it because it had turned the surrounding banks and water a deep red colour. I did feel it and it was marginally warmer than the glacial run off of the river, but I wouldn't want to bathe in it!

The 'piste de resistance' of the season by far for me was the 'Jardin Party'. Everyone in the van park wanted to throw a huge end of season party for the resort, inviting everyone and anyone and generally getting funky in the Alps.

We all clubbed together and had a whip round, amassing 400 Euros in total, which was spent on BBQ food, salads, breads, cheeses etc as well as a trolley load of beers, wines and spirits. I was in the van park when Warwick's Toyota 4x4 rolled in after being to Super U. He opened up the back door to present a trolley full of booze, complete with the trolley!

The community pulled together and really made a go of it. The girls got arty and fabricated signs and banners, James got on unscrewing everyones speakers from their vans and making a pretty wicked sounding, pallet wood DJ desk. I was tasked with lighting and with the help of Hanz strung up his snowboard between two vans and lit it in LEDs as a sort of chandelier. Warwick even made up a professional looking flyer and Hanz and I spent a drunken afternoon postering the resort, making our way from pub to pub to pub (because there's only 3)

Decorations were dotted around, ranging from the typical, ski's and snowboards then on to bicycles on vans, christmas tree decorations and even a kids tractor. A few rugs and carpets were found and a chill out area constructed under tarpaulins.

The party was wicked. Shed loads of people came, from Pistaires to local workers, seasonnaires and quite a few holiday makers who'd seen the flyers up in resort and come along. We all took it in turns to man the bar or the BBQ, handing out sausages and chicken in buns.

James and a few of the other lads got he tunes going and everyone was merrily drunk in no time. It was an awesome party. The funniest thing for me was that everything, the lighting and the music, was powered from everyones solar panels and batteries. We had a mini rave thanks to the sun! and the batteries lasted until 5am...

We had a donation box floating around and was astounded to find that there was over 350 Euros in there when we cracked it open the next day. The party had cost us just 5 euros each!

 I loved my winter season in the van. Yes it was cold at times, yes it wasn't luxurious but the sense of freedom, to do as we pleased, to mingle, to eat every meal with an amazing bunch of people, to be a mini community, smack bang in the middle of the alps... that'll stay with me for ever... I'll miss those meals, I'll miss pizza night with 10 people crammed in the one van with an open, I'll miss sneaking in to the spa for a dip in the jacuzzi, I'll miss waking up to someones van door frozen shut, I'll miss the bongo playing at 3am, I'll miss the journeys back from the pub where you think 'should I really have survived that?'.

Thank you to everyone who made it such a wicked winter...